Don’t talk to him about money, party affiliations or the unlikelihood of a happy ending. Sergio Rodriguez stole the mayoral debates from his Stepford-like foes and believes – God bless him – he can steal the mayoral race.
The Republican candidate is no fool. He saw Tuesday’s numbers. Byron Brown – as expected – crushed Bernard Tolbert in the Democratic primary. The ex-FBI guy was a political novice who started late, hit the ground walking and was bulldozed by the mayor’s machine.
Only the 33-year-old Rodriguez now stands between an uninspiring mayor and a third term.
A sand castle has a better chance in a tsunami.
If policy mattered more than politics, if passion counted at the polls, if party affiliation didn’t mean much, and if money didn’t matter, Rodriguez would soon relocate to City Hall.
That’s not how it works. Numbers tell the tale. Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1 in the city. The mayor has about 50 times the 20 grand that Rodriguez has raised. Rodriguez was disowned by party officials, who know that helping him would pump up Democratic turnout in the city – and undercut Republicans in November’s countywide races. He got the message early from party honchos: Don’t call us; we won’t call you.
There is no logical reason Rodriguez should bother running. His campaign is about passion and principle, not practicality. It’s one of the things I like about him.
Rodriguez will make the next couple of months interesting. He will deny an undeserved free pass to the vision-lite, cause-absent, puzzlingly popular mayor of a slipping city. He will infuse passion, ideas and energy into the campaign. He will raise issues Brown would rather ignore.
Buffalo has gotten poorer, smaller, more violent and less job-friendly in Brown’s eight years. About 20,000 people have left, and more of those left behind are poorer or out of work. Only 10 cities have more violent crime. None of which seems to cloud the feel-good message – aiding Brown more by association than merit – of construction cranes at Canalside, growth on the Medical Campus and a repopulating downtown.
“He’s so silent, it’s like there is no mayor,” Rodriguez told me. “Schools are collapsing, crime is up, we’re losing people – and he’s complacent.”
It’s standard stuff, but from Rodriguez, it sounds like more than a stump speech. Sitting Tuesday in his downtown Electric Tower campaign office, it’s easy to see why the guy gets buzz. He’s bright, looks good, works hard and gets worked up. Confident but not cocky, he seems to believe the David-and-Goliath narrative he commonly references – although the more likely biblical reference involves a sacrificial lamb.
Rodriguez has been plotting a run since the Republicans’ embarrassing mayoral no-show in ’09. He enlisted a volunteer army that includes his fiancée, who was working the phones at the next desk. He is all over Facebook and Twitter, a new millennium candidate who sees Buffalo’s 30,000 Latinos as a rich voter vein.
“The mayor will get into people’s living rooms with TV ads,” Rodriguez said. “I will knock on their doors and walk into their living rooms.”
A bilingual ex-Marine, Rodriguez was born in the Dominican Republic, earned a master’s degree, works with veterans, started a digital media company and is politically precocious. He joined the party’s executive committee at 25 and worked on Kevin Helfer’s doomed ’05 mayoral campaign. He straddles the philosophical line, leaning left on immigration and gay rights, veering right on guns, abortion and economics. He wants cops walking beats, mayoral control of schools and more kids in vocational programs. If bigger-picture Republicans are smart, his future leapfrogs beyond Buffalo.
“Hispanics tell me all the time, ‘Sergio, you’re the right candidate, the wrong party,’ ” he said. “But I’m not going to switch out of convenience.”
He has big ideas about schools and crime, and Friday, he’ll unroll his jobs piece. He is a serious candidate, for a seriously troubled city. If merit carried the day, in a few months we might be talking about Mayor Rodriguez. Not likely. But if nothing else, Sergio Rodriguez will make a race of it. We deserve at least that much.